Stella Tennant, 1970-2020

Tennant photographed by Guy Marineau while walking the runway for Chanel’s Spring 1994 collection

When Stella Tennant began modeling in 1993, her background was often the topic of discussion: she was an actual aristocrat, a granddaughter of the 11th Duke of Devonshire, Andrew Cavendish, and his wife Deborah Mitford (of the ever-fascinating Mitford Sisters) on her mother’s side, and of the 2nd Baron Glenconner on her father’s side.

She was certainly the only fashion model I’ve ever mentioned in a museum tour, as a real-life footnote to John Singer Sargent’s grand portrait The Wyndham Sisters: Lady Elcho, Mrs. Adeane, and Mrs. Tennant at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

It was a shock to read yesterday that Tennant had died at the age of 50. And, as I looked through dozens and dozens of photos, I remembered again that her pedigree (and her bone structure) may have been inherited, but her style and attitude were all her own.

Photographed by Mario Testino for VOGUE UK in 2012

Tennant’s on-camera persona was elegant yet edgy, simultaneously posh and punk. She later said that she was initially ambivalent about stepping into the fashion world, but that the Nineties were “a great time to start modeling—lots of the brilliant designers and photographers were my contemporaries, more or less.”

Becoming a visual storyteller in tandem with those great designers and photographers and creative directors who featured her on runways and in magazine pages for more than twenty-five years, Tennant was always recognizable yet completely versatile.

She starred in any number of lushly staged and historically influenced photo shoots, like the one in which she embodied a Belle Epoque society lady on a seaside holiday in Deauville (above).

Photographed by Steven Meisel for W in 2013

She also dominated pared-down, starkly futuristic shoots with her androgynous features and long lines. But really, she did everything well—who could model convincingly for Chanel and McQueen and Versace and H&M…?

Photographed by Arthur Elgort for VOGUE in 1995

This famous Arthur Elgort photo of Tennant diving into a swimming pool—fully clad in tweed suit and wellies—was the conclusion to an out-of-doors shoot that played on her aristocratic heritage (and her prototypically English outdoorsiness) as well as her free spirit.

Speaking of free spirits, and just to bring things back to the topic of perfume…

Photographed for Calvin Klein by Steven Meisel in 1994, sixth from left

Tennant appeared in the original, indelible ads for Calvin Klein’s cK one in 1994, just one member of a cast that was remarkably diverse for its time (or even for the present day, come to think of it). For the accompanying television ad, which featured Stella, Kate, Jenny, and company all talking, dancing, and gesticulating at once, see here.

Tennant was also the face of Burberry during its crucial rebranding in the 1990s, and she appeared in ads for Burberry’s new fragrances for men and women in 1995, just a year after the cK one ad—but here she’s attending a multigenerational afternoon teatime and is more conservatively attired in a Burberry coatdress (with her hair in the casual “messy bun” that countless women are still striving to achieve).

I don’t think I’ve ever smelled these fragrances…apparently they’re still being produced? The women’s scent was created by Michel Almairac and its original bottle was designed by Pierre Dinand.

I do remember Burberry Touch (launched in 2000); I loved the bottle design (the caps were a pleasure to handle), and I enjoyed the women’s version, although I never purchased it.

Once again, Tennant showed very little skin but managed to suggest plenty of sensuality through her gaze and the light placement of her hand.

JAR Ferme Tes Yeux

I’d imagine Tennant owned a few complimentary bottles of Touch and the original Burberry, but her personal tastes in fragrance were reportedly more esoteric and daring. In August 2020 she told the Financial Times that she wore JAR Ferme Tes Yeux (“Close Your Eyes”).

I used to visit the JAR alcove in Bergdorf Goodman, and I wrote a post about it years ago, but as far as I know, you have to visit the JAR boutique in Paris nowadays to smell JAR’s very exclusive (and very expensive) fragrances. My two favorites, when I had the chance to sniff them, were Golconda and…Ferme Tes Yeux. The latter is a mysterious and almost raunchy blend of white florals (lots of ylang ylang, I think?) and civet and a powdery leather. Elegant and, yes, edgy.

Gaia also loved Ferme Tes Yeux and reviewed it for her own blog. If she were still with us, Gaia would have been writing her own tribute to Stella Tennant right now, and I’m sure she would have shared my bittersweet delight in learning that we shared Tennant’s taste for Ferme Tes Yeux.

Photographed by Simon Watson for Introspective Magazine in 2016

I didn’t know until now, doing some reading, that Tennant had attended art school before starting her modeling career or that she had more recently opened a gilding studio and home decor brand with her sister Isabel. You can read more about that here.

Stella walking the runway for the Anna Sui Spring 1994 show

I can’t imagine the loss that Tennant’s family and friends must be feeling today. I hope they’ll find some peace and comfort in memories of her beauty and strength and creativity.

Thank you, Stella, for shining like you did.

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